The New Conformists
A reflection on what happens when “tech-forwardness” takes us backwards.
A few weeks ago, I paid a visit to Reformation on Main Street in Santa Monica. I walked into the minimally designed store with a clear plan: spend time exploring, and hopefully, leave with a dress that gave me a Lizzo-level of confidence.
Not too much to ask, right? Reformation had something different in mind, and as a result, my experience was fully hijacked. Not due to a catty sales associate or obnoxiously loud music (@Abercrombie). It imploded because of a screen.
On average, Americans spend more than ten hours daily in front of a screen, and I’m no stranger to this state of digital being. That week, I had been glued to my MacBook Pro, iPhone, TV, Kindle, iPad… and do Jumbotrons count? (went to a Dodgers game). What’s more, I had spent about an hour (surely an underestimate to make myself feel better) checking out Instagram, shopping apps, and the Internet in search of the aforementioned dress. I did not realize that I was suffering from pixel exhaustion until I walked in to Reformation’s store.The sales associate greeted me, and without hesitation, ushered me over to a flat-screen TV mounted onto the shop’s wall. She explained:
“As a tech-forward company, we do it differently here at Reformation. Use the touch screen to choose what you’d like in your size, and it will appear in a changing room once you’ve pressed ‘try on.’”
I glanced around at the surrounding racks of clothing, begging to be touched, not touch-screened. Awkwardly, I succumbed to the pressure of “shopping in a new way” and my fear I’d be on my way to getting “ok Boomered” if I did not embrace “tech-forwardness.” Back to the interface I went. The only difference being I had an audience of two sales associates watching me… watching a screen. I picked a floral-printed linen dress and went to the changing room where I opened two cupboard doors to find it “magically” ready for me. As I felt the fabric, I was disheartened by the scratchiness and dulled colors. And no, it did not look the same on me as the on-screen model (expected, but nonetheless added insult to injury).
I left empty handed. And super annoyed.
Turning to the Internet, I hoped that outrage culture had already targeted and destroyed this “new” shopping experience with cathartic precision. To my surprise, I found nothing but praise: “Reformation’s high-tech store reimagines clothing shopping from the ground up,” read one article. The sentiment went further: a stream of headlines littered with praiseworthy buzzwords like “innovation” and “disruption”.
Entrepreneurial culture loves a classic “tech-forward” company story where founders rethink antiquated systems in the name of progress. There is a romantic fervor to crushing existing models in favor of new tech-powered frameworks. This rebelliousness resonates with a savvy consumer world that desires continual upgrades and novelty. It’s no wonder that brands spanning from food to weed to real estate all self-identify as tech companies. They claim technology drives their business, and therefore, they are a technology company. And while this may be in part true, the hilarity of Peloton and MedMen claiming tech as their differentiator has been lost on the public. In October, WeWork filed for an IPO… pitching as a tech company (the word “technology” appears 110 times in its prospectus). This flies in the face of their very core offering: a physical space for coworking. We are seeing that the obsession for “big tech” status spares no corporation these days. As demonstrated most recently by none other than McDonald’s. Yes, the golden arches will be powered by algorithms rather than lightbulbs and french fries. From an interface, AI-infused drive-through experience to its very own incubator in Silicon Valley, McDonald’s “does indeed feel a bit like shopping online” and has begun to turn into “a saltier, greasier version of Amazon,” reports The New York Times. And guess what? The kiosks don’t take cash. So while McDonalds designs for a “tech-future,” it turns its back on the 8.4m households that don’t have a credit or debit card. Up to 60% of their customers pay in cash, begging the critique that McDonald’s “tech-forwardness” strains, or worse, excludes the people that eat their food.
There has been no considered pause to evaluate the ostensibly innovative nature of McDonald’s new customer-facing experience, Peloton’s riding experience, Domino’s ordering experience, or Reformation’s retail experience. At the end of the day, no matter how you slice it, we are simply staring at a screen more and more. Okay, you don’t have to leave your home to access a cycling instructor. Okay, you no longer have to pick up the phone to call — a pizza emoji will suffice. But, does that really move us “forward”? Does more screen time yet less sociability and tactility reflect the romantic idealism in disruption?
The interface has begun to dilute a space that was once meant for human interaction. Reformation is a cautionary tale of when tech becomes fashionable. ‘Tech-Forwardness’ is in vogue, and the tax we pay is the rich, social interactions all human beings crave. We are so in awe of our supposed disruption, we don’t question its validity. Let’s face it, the interface is hardly a disruptive idea in 2019.
Ironically, it was not a screen that delivered on the dress… it was a friend who lent me one of hers. Two glasses of wine and some sushi later, I was reminded that real “forward” momentum can simply be quality time spent with a friend. In person.
A ‘reformation’ is defined as an action or process of reforming an institution or practice. Encouraging the omnipresent tech behaviors of scrolling, staring, and non-verbal communication does not qualify as a reformative practice. Indeed, when brands execute tech-forwardness by adhering to the status quo, their actions can be interpreted quite differently: they are conforming. As tech innovation roars and rages with disruptive intentions and the (virtual) standing ovation of an easily excitable audience, many businesses are in danger of confusing perceived progress with actual momentum, of being conformists disguised as reformists.